What were the various functions of the State in Marxist-Leninism?
I think it would be very wise from the outset to make a distinction between the "Marxist-Leninism" of
the so-called former communist countries and the political theory and revolutionary strategy
advocated by Lenin and the Bolshevik Party. What I will do here is focus on the ideas of Lenin and
explain how he perceived the state and how his understanding of the function of the state guided the
political practice of the Bolshevik Party. With an understanding of these ideas, you can then offer your
own interpretation/explanation for the failings of the Communist system in Russia and elsewhere.
The way I understand Lenin is as a thinker and political activist who attempted to implement the
revolutionary ideas of Karl Marx in the Russia of the 20th Century. It was Marx who theorised about
the antagonistic relationship between that class which owns the means of production (factories, land,
machines etc.) — the ruling class or bourgeoisie, and that class which owns nothing other than its
ability to sell its labour power (its ability to work) to the ruling class — namely the working class or
proletariat. It was Marx who believed that the conflict between these classes was an integral feature
of all capitalist societies. It was Marx who believed that this conflict would intensify as capitalism
developed, and it was Marx who hoped that a victory by the working class in this conflict with the
ruling class would lead to a radically different society i.e. a communist one.
It is within this context of the antagonistic relation between these two classes, a relationship where
the ruling class exploits the working class and imprisons its members in a perpetual cycle of poverty,
that Lenin theorised about the state. The state, first and foremost, comprises all those institutions that
perpetuate the dominance of the ruling class over the working class. There are two ways in which the
state can maintain this dominance. Firstly, it can, if it must, dominate the working class through
physical force- this is what the army and police force do. Secondly, it can maintain this dominance
through ideological means — through the education system, through the judicial system and, to an
extent, through the Church. The important point that Lenin grasped was that the state's primary
purpose was (and still is according to modern Marxists) to ensure that the ruling class could continue
its exploitation of the working class. The state is an instrument of class rule.It is not, as some
theorists claim, a "neutral" arbiter between the two classes. It's apparent neutrality, its presentation of
itself as a body outside of class relations is an ideological smokescreen that conceals its true nature.
Because the purpose of the state is to maintain the dominance of one class over another, it would be
redundant in any future classless (communist) society. The state exists primarily as instrument of
class domination. Take away the class domination and there is simply no need for a state.
Back to political strategy. Marx had envisaged a situation when the oppressed working class, finally
conscious of itself as a class, rose up against the ruling class, overthrowing both them and their
capitalist economic system and established a communist society. Lenin realised that before a truly
communist society was established the working class would have to become the physically dominant
class. They would have to physically seize the means of production from the ruling class and be
prepared to defend their gains from attack. Lenin, quite correctly, predicted that the ruling class would
not give up their wealth/factories etc. without a fight. Whilst the risk of a counter attack from the ruling
class exists, the working class will effectively have to function as a dominant class. It will, in the
interests of the survival of the revolution, have to ruthlessly defend its gains from those members of
the ruling class and their representatives who refuse to accept their loss. The working class will have
to use every means at its disposal to defend the revolution.
Now, because the state is an extremely effective tool of class domination (that's its primary function
after all), it would make sense for the working class to take over the state and use its apparatus to
dominate the old ruling class. So long as the threat from the ruling class exists, there will be a need
for the working class to use the repressive state apparatus to defend the gains of the revolution. The
state, once the instrument for subduing the working class becomes, in the hands of the working class,
the tool by which the old ruling class are prevented from organising a counter-revolution and are
It is in this context that the working class political party (the Bolsheviks for Lenin) takes control of the
state. Not, as some anarchist and right wing commentators believe, because they are power crazed
or dictatorial, but to defend the hard won gains of the revolution from those who wish to destroy it.
Theoretically, once the threat of counter-revolution has subsided there should be no need for the
state to exist.
Of course, this is not what happened in practice. The Bolshevik Party retained control of the state and
used it for its own ultimately repressive ends. Various thinkers and historians have offered their
explanations of this failure. A very common sense idea is that power simply corrupts and the
Bolsheviks, once in control of state power, simply didn't want to let it go. This argument has the
appeal of seeming intuitively correct but there are other explanations. Perhaps the danger of
counter-revolution was always present and the repressive state was necessary to protect the
revolution. These are two very simple explanations and there are many others. Perhaps the best
person to read on the failure of this system is Leon Trotsky and there is, of course, always Lenin's
classic, State and Revolution, available online at: